WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Supreme Court justices know a little something about parties: the parties they went to where people had marijuana, the parties they heard about from their kids, and a wild house party hosted by a woman named “Peaches.” Their understanding of the third will decide a case that could change the way police do their jobs.
The case — D.C. v. Wesby — dates back to a particularly wild 2008 house party thrown by a woman known as Peaches, who left before neighbors called the cops. The D.C. officers, believing the house was vacant, arrested 21 people inside for unlawful entry, later changing the charges to disorderly conduct before dropping them altogether. Sixteen of them sued, arguing they should never have been arrested because the officers had no reason to believe they knew Peaches wasn’t authorized to use the house.
The court agreed, granting them $680,000, which the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The officers appealed to the Supreme Court, which will have to decide if the officers had probable cause to arrest everyone for trespassing, and if the officers acted reasonably.
The ensuing oral arguments led to some unlikely admissions from the justices, including Justice Elena Kagan, who offered she had been to parties thrown by strangers with drugs.
“When looked at from the reasonable partygoer’s view, there are these parties that, once long ago, I used to be invited to,” Justice Kagan said to loud laughs from the audience. “Where you don’t know the host, but you know Joe is having a party. And can I say that long, long ago, marijuana was maybe present at those parties? It just is not obvious that the reasonable partygoer is supposed to walk into this apartment and say: Got to get out of here.”
“I am told, perhaps I shouldn’t take this into account, but compared to the Middle Ages with which I am more familiar,” Justice Stephen Breyer said, drawing laughs from the audience. “The people today, younger people frequently say, hey, there’s a party at Joe’s house. And before you know it, 50 people go to Joe’s house. They don’t really ask themselves does Joe own the house or rent the house or something. It’s Joe’s house. And nobody questions it.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed. “Someone invites me into what they claim is their home or their place of living. Isn’t that an invitation?” she said. “I don’t ask to look at their lease. I assume if they’re there, they can invite me in.”
The only question asked by Justice Anthony Kennedy, traditionally the swing vote, was a clarification about the reason for the party in the first place: “So Peaches is the host at a bachelor party. Is that it?”
The arguments took a more serious turn when the justices questioned if things would have turned out differently in a wealthy community. Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch asked the partygoers’ lawyer, Nathaniel Garrett, if officers could have determined the house was vacant if the house had been in an affluent community. Garrett conceded it would be a “closer case,” and Justice Sotomayor agreed things would have turned out differently, albeit for a different reason.
“I suspect that if police officers arrived at a wealthy home and it was white teenagers having a party, and one of them says, “my dad just bought this house,” that … those kids wouldn’t be arrested.”